Two political titans duke it out In back-to-back federal elections during the mid-1920s.
At a glance, the story seems simple: in back-to-back federal elections held on October 29, 1925 and September 14, 1926, the Conservative party swept all 12 seats in Toronto and York County. The end.
But those sweeps happened amid two of the testiest elections in Canadian history. There were two main parties in national races as tight as our current campaign. Those parties were led by two men—Conservative Arthur Meighen and Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King—who honed their debating skills at the University of Toronto during the 1890s. By the 1920s, they had developed a bottomless mutual loathing. Toss in a scandal involving customs officials and bootlegging, a collapsing third party, head-scratching statements on the campaign trail, and a constitutional crisis, and you’ve got the makings of grand political drama.
One of the best introductions to what unfolded was provided by political strategist John Duffy in his book Fights of Our Lives:
Two of the most compelling figures ever to mount our political stage would fight the climatic round of their ten-year duel. This duel would decide whether the Tories or Grits would rule and a stable party system would re-emerge from the chaos following the First World War, or whether Canada would suffer the anarchic, revolving-door governments that characterized postwar Europe. Finally, the double-header would decide whether Canadian parliamentary politics—indeed, Canada itself—would break away from the legacy of British colonial rule.
The Canadian political party system fell into chaos after the Conservatives invited pro-conscription Liberals to join their Union government in 1917. Farmers angry with the Unionists’ high tariff policy united with dissident, free trader former Liberals to form the Progressive Party in 1920. The Liberals were reduced to a rump who, though its strength lay in Quebec, was led by Toronto-born King following the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1919.
The 1921 federal election produced Canada’s first minority government. The Conservatives, under Meighen, fell into third place as the Progressives capitalized on anger in the west and rural Ontario. King’s Liberals scored the most seats and, with the support of many Progressives (sometimes called “Liberals in a hurry”) governed for the next four years.
As he headed into the 1925 campaign, King felt unsure about his party’s strength, as the party lost provincial campaigns in New Brunswick and, after a 43-year-run, Nova Scotia. He also obsessed about the lacklustre coverage the party received from its traditional Toronto press organ, the Globe. The problem was publisher William Gladstone Jaffray, a man whose prudishness was cartoonish in its extremities. Jaffray opposed divorce and gambling, and, in a policy which cost the Globe countless dollars, refused to run ads for liquor, tobacco, and female undergarments. He ran religious editorials and denounced atheists. A tightwad with his staff, he reputedly gave tons of money to his church. To appease Jaffray, King made several attempts to pass legislation to outlaw the evil of publishing horse racing results. As each bill died in the Senate, Jaffray published editorials critical of the Liberals and their leader.
To combat Jaffray, King enlisted several Globe editors who were loyal party men to write positive pieces. After another horse racing results bill failed in June 1925, Jaffray interfered with editorial, prompting a series of resignations. During a peace meeting arranged before the election, Jaffray questioned King’s commitment to Christianity. Needless to say, the rest of the meeting didn’t go well. More resignations ensued. An editorial published on September 1, 1925 declared that the Globe was nobody’s party organ, and that “it will be better for Liberalism to go out of power fighting for its principles than to surrender the direction of public affairs in Canada to a Senatorial oligarchy representative of nothing but the prejudices of superannuated politicians and the predatory instincts of high finance.” The paper refused to endorse anyone.
King cited the Globe’s backstabbing as one of the reasons the Liberals fell into second place when the results of the 1925 election rolled in. He wrote an account of a report he received from a teacher at the Toronto Institute of the Blind “who being herself a good Liberal read aloud the Globe to the inmates of the institution all through the campaign with the result that when the day of polling came these poor physically blind young women each and every one voted against the Liberal party because the Globe had told them it was the only thing to do.”
Other reasons included King’s lacklustre, windy campaigning style, and a dull platform which offered little more than staying the course—“Tariff for Revenue” was not a stirring rallying cry. King was barely bothered by losing his seat in York North, which included Aurora and Newmarket. He could always run in a by-election in a safe seat elsewhere and, as the riding evolved into a suburban extension of Tory Toronto, it increasingly favoured protectionism. “Expectations have not been realized,” he wrote in his diary, “yet I believe all is for the best.”
Besides, Meighen’s Conservatives couldn’t form a majority. Though the Tories won 15 more seats than the Grits, King realized he could rely on most of the 24 Progressives to keep him in power. King approached Governor-General Viscount Byng to form the next government. Byng went through all the possible scenarios, suggesting that in the spirit of fair play, the honourable thing for King to do was resign. King didn’t, and the two subsequently disagreed on what would happen if King’s new minority government collapsed—Byng felt King agreed to hand power over to Meighen if that happened, while King thought it was simply a scenario.
Outmanoeuvred, Meighen spent the post-election period attacking King’s legitimacy. While he was a brilliant debater and possessed the smarts to destroy any nonsensical argument, Meighen’s remote nature made him an unappealing leader. “He possessed the deadly clarity and logic of a high school mathematics teacher turned lawyer—and the charm of both,” Duffy observed. “He wielded a cruel and piercing wit, and he conveyed none of the warmth that was the glue of the close-knit worlds of caucus, cabinet, and party.”
Shortly after the election, Meighen made a giant blunder. During a banquet honouring a local MP in Hamilton on November 16, 1925, Meighen pondered what would happen if another great war broke out:
I do not anticipate that we of this generation will ever be called upon to take part in war again, and I earnestly hope that our children and our children’s children may be free from the curse of war, but if ever the time should come where the spectre of 1914 should again appear I believe it would be best, not only that Parliament should be called, but that the decision of the Government, which, of course, would have to be given promptly, should be submitted to the judgement of the people at a general election before troops should leave our shores.
Reaction among prominent Toronto Tory MPs, especially those tied to the Orange Order, at what became known as the “heresy at Hamilton” was not enthusiastic. Former mayor Horatio Hocken, who also edited the Orange Sentinel, felt that, as the Conservatives drew support from people “sick and tired of French Canadian domination in federal affairs,” such a policy appeared to appease anti-conscriptionist Quebecers. Another former mayor, Tommy Church, saw the speech as a betrayal of Canada’s strong ties to the mother country. “We are part and parcel of the British Empire and not a nation within ourselves,” Church declared. “We do not need autonomy.” Meighen dismissed Church’s views, feeling the gladhanding old politico’s contribution to parliamentary debates was “irrelevant and tedious.”
The first half of 1926 saw plenty of political deal making. King maintained the support of radical Progressives like J.S. Woodsworth (later a founder of the CCF, forerunner of the NDP) by promising to institute an old age pension scheme. A budget promising lower taxes and a surplus seemed popular with the public. But his grasp on power grew shakier as allegations of corruption emerged from the customs department, where officials had accepted bribes or looked the other way when dealing with rum runners. By late June, the customs scandal had uncovered corruption so blatant it was hard for some Progressives to continue supporting King.
After lengthy debates and the loss of two procedural motions, King went to consult Byng on June 26. Hoping to avoid a censure motion, King asked the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and call an election. Byng was disgusted—his wife, the namesake of the hockey trophy for gentlemanly behaviour, later called King “a scurvy cad” for being such a disreputable character . Over the next three days, King worked on Byng to grant a dissolution. Byng refused, insisting Meighen should have a chance to run the country.
The Constitutional Crisis of 1926, aka the King-Byng Affair, aka the King-Byng Wing Ding, was underway.
During a House session lasting 15 minutes on June 28, King announced his resignation. Uncharacteristically, he did so in a 105-word speech. Meighen tried to intervene, but was shushed, as the motion couldn’t be debated. King also implied that no legal government existed at that moment. Tory MPs celebrated their good fortune by forming a proto-conga line.
Meighen’s first challenge was creating a cabinet. The problem was that, under rules that weren’t eliminated until 1931, any incoming cabinet minister had to resign their seat and run in a by-election, usually unopposed. If this happened, there was no way Meighen would have enough support to carry on. After consulting with constitutional experts, the solution was to create six acting ministers without portfolio, though Meighen still had to resign to become Prime Minister.
Chaos ensued when the House resumed sitting on June 29. Within a day, the censure motion stemming from the customs scandal passed, while a non-confidence motion from King failed. Progressive leader Robert Forke resigned his post when many of his members voted with the Conservatives.
After dinner on June 30, King questioned Conservative House Leader Sir Henry Drayton (who represented the Toronto-area riding of York West) about the legality of the ministerial set-up. Though King was legally wrong about the legitimacy of ministers who hadn’t taken an official oath, he was on a roll as he depicted Meighen’s actions as a battle between liberty and tyranny and Byng as having installed an imperialist puppet without going to the public.
King hit his stride when he raised the spectre of his grandfather as an opponent of British tyranny: the old rebel mayor himself, William Lyon Mackenzie:
Yes, I am thinking of ’37, and I tell my honourable friend that I was never prouder in my life than to have the privilege of standing in this parliament tonight and on behalf of British parliamentary institutions denouncing the irresponsible government of his party…1837 was bad enough, but it was not a circumstance on the present condition of affairs. If at the instance of one individual a prime minister can be put into office and with a ministry which is not yet formed be permitted to vote all the supplies necessary to carry on the government of Canada for a year, we have reached a condition in this country that threatens constitutional liberty, freedom and right in all parts of the world.
King had found his leadership voice.
The next few hours saw plenty of wheeling and dealing, but the end of the 65-hour long Meighen government came through a stroke of luck. During a non-confidence motion, begun shortly before 2 a.m. on July 2, Manitoba Progressive MP Thomas William Bird shot up and supported the motion, a surprise since he had agreed not to vote after pairing off with an absent colleague. The motion passed 96 to 95. The Star’s obituary for the Meighen government declared that it was “born in error and had a brief and unhappy career.”
Meighen went to Byng to dissolve Parliament, a request which was granted. The ensuing campaign was one of the longest in Canadian history, stretching 74 days. King was lucky; had he received his original election request, he would have had to defend his government against the customs scandal and likely lost. But now he was fired up with indignation against Meighen, which he presented to the public as a stand against power-hungry imperialists who would like little more than to turn back the clock on Canada’s growing independence from Great Britain.
King was assisted by rifts which were healing within the party, especially in Ontario. There, the party had remained divided over fallout from the split in 1917: rural suspicions of Toronto, jealousies between federal and provincial wings, and differences over temperance policy. Enough healing was happening to run a stronger campaign in 1926. After visiting Toronto, King noted that “there I saw for the first time since I have been leader of the Liberal party real evidence of organization machinery in Ontario.” His speaking style grew more passionate, as he would move from local issues to the constitutional crisis at each stop. He even looked better, his puffy frame having shrunk from the stresses of the past parliamentary session.
King’s team also knew how to play Meighen’s stumbles to their advantage. On August 2, Meighen attended a picnic for York North MP Herbert Lennox (who had defeated King the previous year) at Island Grove, near Keswick. The appearance was ill-fated from the start: soon after he started speaking, the back side of the stage collapsed, sending dignitaries like Toronto Mayor Thomas Foster tumbling. After Meighen left, subsequent speaker George Wright suggested that in the future, Conservatives should limit the vote among new immigrants solely to those coming from Great Britain. By the end of the month, the Liberals used Wright’s comments to arouse the wrath of immigrant communities, especially on the Prairies. During an August 24 stop in Aberdeen, Saskatchewan, Meighen declined any responsibility for Wright’s statements, as he hadn’t been there. Toronto Liberal candidates, like former football star Smirle Lawson, asked how the Tories expected to attract any immigrants if that was how they truly felt.
The “heresy in Hamilton” incident continued to haunt Meighen. During a September 7 rally at Massey Hall, a heckler asked if he stood by his earlier position on conscription. Meighen’s reaction was typical of his campaigning style: cold, remote, and contemptuous. “When the time comes that the circumstances contemplated in the Hamilton speech are before the people of Canada I will discuss that speech,” he replied angrily. “Now other circumstances are before the people, and those I am going to discuss.” Both the Liberals and unfriendly press didn’t let Meighen forget that four years earlier, when Great Britain nearly declared war on Turkey during the Chanak crisis, he felt Canadians should be “ready, aye, ready” whenever the mother country hit the battlefield.
The Conservatives also dealt with internal divisions in local races. Veteran gadfly William Findlay Maclean was dropped in York South in favour of East York reeve R.H. McGregor; Maclean, by then the longest serving MP in the House, stayed in the race as an “independent Conservative.” McGregor would win and serve as an MP for the next 36 years, earning a reputation for being so quiet a backbencher that that the only time “Silent Bob” was recorded to have made a speech was on his 74th birthday in 1960, when he remarked that “if a good many honourable members made fewer speeches in the House, they would be here longer.” A nastier battle took place in Toronto Northeast, where a war for the hearts and minds of Tory voters was fought between party choice Newton Young and incumbent Richard Baker.
As the campaign wound down, Toronto’s four daily newspapers weighed in with their endorsements. The Star backed the Liberals, urging their supporters to get over apathy induced by the city’s tendency to vote Conservative:
In this election the careless and non-voting public should turn out and vote. The Liberals should do so in order to give support to the men who are making their fight in this campaign and they should do it in order that Toronto shall not, in the rest of Canada, continue to be misunderstood as a city more partisan than it actually is, and absorbed wholly in the high tariff idea so obnoxious to several great provinces in which the fate and future of the country is largely wrapped up.
Of the two papers backing the Conservatives, the Mail and Empire was the calmer one. They depicted the Tories as agents of prosperity and stability compared to the alliances King required to stay in power to govern via “maladministration.” The Telegram hysterically used biblical allusions to Armageddon when depicting creeping Americanization as the country’s fate if King was elected. “WILL YOU VOTE FOR CANADA’S COUNTRY OR FOR UNCLE SAM’S CONTINENT?” screamed one editorial headline, even if the Telegram’s vision of Canada was as an appendage of Great Britain. One article depicted King alongside Irish Free State prime minister W.T. Cosgrave and South African prime minister J.B.M. Hertzog as leaders of states within the British Empire who had proposed or gone ahead with removing the Union Jack from their flags, thus making King an “ally of the Empire wreckers” (while Meighen was shown alongside “Empire builders” from Australia and New Zealand).
Over at the Globe, Jaffray’s displeasure was evident; as in 1925, the paper refused to endorse the Grits or Tories. The Globe was “faced with evidence that both of them secretly have been accepting campaign contributions from the distillers.” It was suggested that regardless of the result, Canadians needed to “awaken to their responsibilities and fight for the purification and strengthening of the political life of their country,”preferably, one assumes, if that discussion also involved the destruction of alcohol distillers and a publishing ban on horse racing statistics.
While the Conservatives once again swept Toronto and York County on September 14, 1926, the national results favoured King. While the Conservative popular vote remained the same, the Liberals had regained support lost to the disintegrating Progressives. When combined with joint Liberal-Progressive candidates and other third party allies, the Liberals earned 124 seats compared to 91 for the Conservatives. In a reversal of 1925, Meighen lost his seat in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, while King won his new riding in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. There, King defeated a young Tory named John Diefenbaker, who figured his campaign was doomed after watching Meighen rip into an elderly voter who asked why the Conservative leader opposed old age pensions.
The Globe decided the public had chosen King as the lesser of two evils, while the Telegram thought a crime was committed in the name of democracy. Its editorial assessment was melodramatic: “Canadians have good cause to mourn for a country that can find no sources of consolation in the election results.”
People flooded the streets of downtown Toronto to hear the results, despite voter turnout having dropped from the previous year. Meighen biographer Roger Graham attributed the decline to the local seats being such safe ones “that some Liberals thought it was useless to vote and many Conservatives thought it was needless.” Regardless, Torontonians, especially Tories, blocked streets and disrupted streetcar service to celebrate local victories as they were relayed at each newspaper office. “Not since the liquor plebiscite of two years ago has downtown Toronto accommodated such a vast concentration of people,” the Globe reported. Police were pleased with the orderly behaviour of the crowd. Certain candidates had cheering sections; when Tommy Church’s victory in Toronto Northwest was announced, a man standing outside the Telegram yelled “Good old Tommy! No matter who goes down, you’ll always be elected.”
In the end, as Graham observed, Meighen couldn’t reconcile himself to being outfoxed by the dastardly King:
Defeat would have rankled for Meighen no matter who the adversary but to be beaten just when his own triumph looked assured by King of all men, in Meighen`s eyes the living embodiment of deceit, unreason, and hypocrisy, was an intolerable blow to his pride and one that weakened his hitherto genuine faith in the democratic process…His victory, in Meighen`s view of the case, meant that large masses of the voters could be swayed by demagogic appeals, impressed by soft, shapeless, confusing, meaningless verbiage, or seduced with proffers of public funds. It meant that the people either cared more for tax reductions than for the Constitution or had allowed themselves to be carried away by King`s emotional and entirely ridiculous utterances about responsible government and national autonomy.
But he also ran up against a nation beginning to assert its independence. Our troops had proven themselves during the First World War, our diplomats brokered peace during an international crisis, and our lawmakers relied less on Great Britain to handle our affairs. King’s arguments against tyranny, no matter how nonsensical they may have been in reality, captured an increasing sense that Canada just might be a country ready to stand on its own.
Additional material from Fights of Our Lives by John Duffy (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2002); Arthur Meighen Volume Two by Roger Graham (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1963); King by Allan Levine (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011); Toronto: Biography of a City by Allan Levine (Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre, 2014); Unrevised and Unrepented: Debating Speeches and Others by Arthur Meighen (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1949); William Lyon Mackenzie King: 1924-1932 The Lonely Heights by H. Blair Neatby (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963); the September 1, 1925, September 9, 1926, September 13, 1926, and September 15, 1926 editions of the Globe; the September 11, 1926 edition of the Mail and Empire; the July 2, 1926, August 3, 1926, August 24, 1926, September 10, 1926, and September 11, 1926 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 13, 1926 and September 15, 1926 editions of the Telegram.